By Associated Press - Saturday, December 31, 2016

ST. JOSEPH, La. (AP) - State health officials say nearly 22 percent of the homes in a small northeast Louisiana town have unsafe levels of lead in the drinking water.

Gov. John Bel Edwards issued an emergency order Dec. 16 when two routine samples showed similar conditions and two more showed high levels of copper. He ordered the town to start drinking bottled water that was delivered from state reserves set aside for disasters.

Louisiana Department of Health employees started testing the drinking water from each of the 470 homes, businesses, and schools on the town’s system just before Christmas. Federal law requires action if lead levels exceed 15 parts per billion in 10 percent of the samples.

The Advocate reports ( ) state Health Officer Dr. Jimmy Guidry said the sampling found actionable levels of lead in 21.7 percent of the 414 customers whose tests have been completed. Guidry said 52 connections haven’t been sampled because the homes or businesses were vacant or those there didn’t respond.

Health workers are visiting all the homes with unsafe readings to answer questions and, where appropriate, conduct an environmental investigation to determine where precisely the lead originated. Guidry said testing of the water supply showed lead levels too low to cause the readings health workers found at 90 meters. The sources could come from paint or soil or corroding pipes, he said.

The town’s new mayor, Elvadus Fields, was notified of the lead levels shortly after being sworn in Friday.

Fields unseated four-term incumbent Edward Brown by three votes out of 421 cast in an election that revolved around anger about the continuing water crisis.

“The truth is, this should have been fixed years ago,” Fields said of the drinking water that has run yellowish-brown from the tap for years, largely because of the 90-year-old system that has been poorly maintained.

State health officials said high levels of manganese and iron causes the discoloration.

“The message to the folks who live there is not to drink the water,” Guidry said. “They may have no level. We would still prefer they don’t drink the water because of the deterioration of the plant that treats the water and the infrastructure, the pipes that deliver the water.”

Families, particularly those with children under the age of 6 or with pregnant women, should have their blood tested for lead exposure. Lead dissolved in water has no taste, smell and is not visible, so testing is the only sure way to know, he said.

Even low levels of lead can result in lower IQs, hearing problems, anemia and other serious health problems.

“We’re urging them to get in touch with their primary care doctor. And if they don’t have one, we’ve provided them with a list of resources where they can get the testing done,” Guidry said.

State Rep. Marcus Hunter, D-Monroe, said that may not be enough.

“These residents of St. Joseph have been continuously exposed to excessive concentrated levels of damaging substances and need physical, mental, and psychological testing in addition to sustainable water supplies,” Hunter said Friday. “What’s being done to the people of Louisiana is criminal and I urge the attorney general to intervene.”

When Brown walked into the mayor’s office 16 years ago, the town’s troubled water system was at the top of the agenda.

“I had a lot of sleepless nights worrying that people would get sick,” even though he had been assured year after year that while unappetizing, the water was safe, Brown said.

In June, an independent auditor issued a report that allowed the town to access $8 million to replace pipes and upgrade the water filtration facility. State District Judge John D. Crigler then appointed David Greer, a former assistant legislative auditor from Watson, to oversee the finances.

Since then, the water tower has been refurbished. The replacement of all the town’s distribution pipes, which pumps the water to the customers, will begin in a couple weeks. The facility that treats the water will be upgraded. The goal is to have the new system going by June.

In the meantime, each resident is receiving three liter bottles of water each day.

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